Family, against all odds

I had a friend in college who once said to me that, though he considered himself an atheist, he wanted so badly to believe there was something, anything out there watching over us with tender love and care. He just couldn’t. I was always struck by this because I felt the exact opposite: whereas he was burdened by his lack of belief, I was always burdened by my faith. I wanted not to believe. The last thing I wanted to accept is that this life is all part of some grand plan, some ornate and elaborate blessing after blessing or curse after curse or some hodgepodge of the two. And while I don’t know whether I was ready to throw it all to coincidence, it just feels to me even now like it might be a little simpler if I were more in control of my fate, if God or the Universe or the Great Whatever wasn’t hovering over, because like most of you, I cringe at the notion of being out of control.

But my friends who know I’m adopted from birth and know that I’d communicated with my New Jersey birth family since returning from Morocco will know that some strong sense of purpose, some path-crossing synchronicity, has complicated all of those doubts and beliefs of mine over these past few years. Unbeknownst to me, it was finding out my birth father had worked in the church – just as I had. And it was finding out just after returning from two years of living in Morocco (a place Peace Corps had sent me some seventy years after my grandfather had lived and worked there in the War) that in fact, I was tied to Morocco in another way, since my biological father had traveled there and to Southern Spain around the time of my birth. Of all the places on the planet to be tied to my New Jersey biological family and to my Tennessee adoptive one, it seemed so strange that Morocco would be it.

Sometimes, when you get this kind of news, it seems so unbelievable that it feels like it came out of a movie. People call it “stranger than fiction,” and it is. I worry it’s so strange that it inflates my ego and gives me the false notion that I’m in some sort of Truman Show scenario. Would someone please tell Ed Harris to stop already? There is even a part of me that hears it, knows it to be true, and yet cannot fully accept it, because to do so makes me feel sometimes as though I’ve either fabricated these events in my head and am a pathological liar, or even if it is true, why entertain it because no one else would ever believe it anyway? If there’s anything I’ve learned these past few years, it’s that truth is almost always the scarier reality. But sometimes the more beautiful one despite the silly things we fear.

On Christmas day, I left a little sentimental gift for my girlfriend’s adopted brother, Zech. It was a children’s book I loved that was mostly drawings by John Lennon, and I’d penned a little note on the inside saying that I’d always felt a kindred spirit with this Beatle who’s mother had died when he was young and whose father had disappeared. You gravitate a little to the people who share and understand your story, even if theirs is slightly different, and in the past few months, I’ve gravitated more to Zech and really come to think of him as a brother of sorts.

Truthfully, even though I’d known her family for years, I didn’t even really know Mattie had an adopted brother until we started talking just before I moved to New York. I’d only really known Mattie as someone with roots in Tennessee and had been close with her aunt for years since Mattie and I had both “grown up” at the same camp where her aunt worked, Lakeshore. A few months ago, we discovered that Mattie’s mom, too, in attending Lambuth University in my hometown, had known my grandmother who worked for the Dean. Small towns are small towns, so no major surprises there, and the Methodist community is not a terribly large one. But it was still one of those nice human connections that we made, one of those moments when you discover you have a shared history in some way or another, and that’s always a little affirming.

When I left Shelter Island almost exactly a year ago as I write this, Mattie’s family was a refuge to me as I job-searched New York City and New Jersey. They took me in and treated me as family. It seemed fitting that I’d end up somehow in New Jersey since my roots were on the Jersey side of Philadelphia. And when Zech moved home, it felt like just one more member of the family was showing up.

So, on New Year’s Eve when Zech and I were talking about our Irish ancestry, he mentioned his birth name, and I jokingly asked how he spelled it since it sounded similar to my own. When it was the same, I asked again, “Wait, I’m a Johnston; aren’t you from outside of Philadelphia?” We both started naming areas: Cherry Hill, Mt. Laurel. I mentioned my birth father’s name, and Zech mentioned his grandfather’s name, and that his grandfather had died three weeks ago, and he pulled out a picture of my birth father, his grandfather. My girlfriend’s adopted brother is my biological nephew. His mother is my biological half-sister.

Like I said, stranger than fiction. I want to write Nate Silver, the famous statistician, and ask how that’s statistically possible that a girl I met in Tennessee happened to have someone adopted into her family who was my biological kin in New Jersey. When we sat down with the family to tell everyone else what we’d discovered, Zech joked that I will be more related to his child than anyone else in the family once the kid is born. These days bring a quiet reflective awe, an awe at the power of fate or coincidence, whichever it is.

And so, indeed, back to that whole conversation about coincidence and fate. What am I to say? The facts are in front of me. They are either the craziest coincidence ever or there’s some force pushing us toward a certain reality. Or maybe that’s too limiting a view? Maybe this happenstance and others like it are far more common than we realize or might choose to believe. If you told me that my grandfather had crossed paths with a Moroccan who knew my biological father fifty years later and who also met me when I lived in Morocco, I just don’t think I’d be surprised at all anymore. In fact, knowing how small Morocco can be, I half-expect that was the case. And not because fate wills it that way or because coincidence rules the day with its own sense of destiny or lack thereof but because we, dear humans, are so much more connected than we too often choose to realize. Redneck jokes and “I’m my own Grandpa” music aside, we cannot deny the interconnectedness we all share – sometimes an interconnectedness we may know nothing about. What if this revelation had never come my way? In a way, it changes nothing, because I’d already decided to love Zech as family. Nor does this revelation take away from the daily decisions I’ll make down the road. I am not bound to Zech now anymore than I was before. Because unless I am bound by love, all other sense of duty and obligation is vapid and meaningless. Who we make our family is as much a matter of our choice as it is a matter of blood, and that has far-reaching implications for the world we now face, a world where we seem so divided by our choices to be distant, by our perceived sense of kinship: “you who are not my kin because you think differently or look differently.” I’ve played into that narrative too frequently myself, and maybe sometimes, we do distance ourselves from the ‘family’ because doing so becomes temporarily necessary for our safety and sanity, but how should I act if the family is much bigger than I was prepared to admit before? How should I act if the family is, yes, blood, but is also bigger than blood and, indeed, global? To that friend in college who struggled to believe, I think our sense of the divine, then, is rooted not in belief but in active, faithful choices of love. Whether there’s a God overseeing that or not is less important as whether you chose to love as big and bigger than you might have intended when you started on this little journey we all share. And anything we might call God that lacks that faithful action really isn’t a god I’d like to believe in anyway. However I construe it, I do see something sacred and whole in the choices behind me and in the choices ahead.

In the meantime, you can just think of me as your crazy Uncle Phil. Whether by blood or by choice, there’s a good chance we’re related anyway.

Making Sacred Space Where There is None

There’s this moment during a misty rain in New York City where if you look up to the skyline, the familiarity of the buildings you’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the sunshine is lost to the low-hanging clouds. If you squint, you can see one of the taller towers just peering through the fog but only a darker outline; the details are lost to the haze. Other times, the clouds move with haste through the buildings revealing the architectural wonder of sculpted steel and glass very briefly before they’re covered and blurred again in the wet cloth looming over everything. In a nutshell, that’s been the last week or two here. The rain just won’t let up.

Down below, dodging puddles and avoiding a collision of umbrellas with fellow pedestrians is sort of like playing some weird video game, and I guess what I find so perplexing about New York in the rain is just how different it suddenly becomes. Of course, it’s not different. You’re waltzing the same streets. The buildings, despite their game of hide and seek in the mist, have not uprooted themselves (at least one hopes they haven’t). It’s just that the rain has brought out the unexpected, accentuated the heights and colored-in the depths. When a pothole becomes a puddle, it takes on a whole new meaning – both for people and for cars.

And it’s within those parallel worlds – where things in and of themselves are the same yet somehow altered by outside forces – that I’ve found myself residing lately.

13063024_663701240696_2805720780472638559_oLast week’s trip to the United Nations for a meeting on religious persecution in the Middle East left me desperate to come up for air. If it wasn’t the Dominican nuns describing in hurried Spanish their concern for the people they serve in Syria, then it was the harrowing and heroic story (told by her parents) of aid worker Kayla Mueller whose kidnapping and death in Turkey would not, could not be forgotten. Or it was a fifteen year-old Yazidi girl named Samia who tearfully described in Kurdish what had happened to her at thirteen, to her friends at eight and nine, to thousands of women and children at the hands of terrorists. Systemic, institutionalized sexual assault and abuse. There’s no other words for it.

And having heard these words, having been present as these stories poured out into the captivated room, there was this sense that having the floor of the Economic and Social Chamber at the United Nations could empower the once powerless. To bring your story here was to bring your story before an international audience, one that would, or at least should, stand in solidarity with the weak and the oppressed. The building’s shear presence, after all, is a symbol of hope and security. To speak among these walls is to add to the hope, to shore up a lasting chance for peace, making the brief five or ten minutes each person is allotted the floor seem always too short and yet somehow simultaneously overwhelming…

…overwhelming because story after story bounces off the walls while thousands more innocents are slaughtered to the drum of perceived inaction. …overwhelming because I couldn’t shake the notion that this chamber was an echo chamber empty of the voices of dissent who so needed to hear what the nuns or the Muellers or Samia might have to say. I walked away drained, depressed. I was powerless to affect this situation, or felt I was even if the work I’m currently doing does make a small dent in someones’ lives somewhere.

To hear of the pain and suffering and to know of the callousness of our world – a world grown especially callous as evidenced by the fiasco that calls itself the 2016 Presidential Election – can leave you a little drained. I didn’t have to endure what they did, so why should hearing it be so hard on my privileged psyche? I get why we would rather post silly memes and indulge ourselves in infotainment than actually endure true stories of what’s happening to people in this world. Isolationism is some kind of avoidance disorder promising us a life free of the suffering of others, and thereby making it a lie. And I get it, because there are times where I, too, would like to curl up in a ball and pretend I’d never heard those stories, the ones that needed to be told.

12957677_660087003656_4288971310938836022_oAs I was leaving the United Nations, despairing, I walked around the building and found a small chapel. The stained glass beside it was peculiar if not frightening. It wasn’t a chapel for more than a dozen to comfortably enter. And it was really more of a meditation room of sorts. Reading a plaque on the door, I learned that Dag Hammarskjöld, a former and well-known General Secretary, had personally planned and supervised every detail of the room to serve as a quiet retreat, an offering of stillness, to people of all faiths. In the center of the room, he had placed a six-and-a-half ton, rectangular slab of iron ore and the following words are written nearby:

But the stone in the middle of the room has more to tell us. We may see it as an altar, empty not because there is no God, not because it is an altar to an unknown god, but because it is dedicated to the God whom man worships under many names and in many forms. The stone in the middle of the room reminds us also of the firm and permanent in a world of movement and change. The block of iron ore has the weight and solidity of the everlasting. It is a reminder of that cornerstone of endurance and faith on which all human endeavour must be based. The material of the stone leads our thoughts to the necessity for choice between destruction and construction, between war and peace. Of iron man has forged his swords, of iron he has also made his ploughshares. Of iron he has constructed tanks, but of iron he has likewise built homes for man. The block of iron ore is part of the wealth we have inherited on this earth of ours. How are we to use it? […] There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in their center of stillness.

Of all the despairing, I understood why Dag Hammarskjöld felt such a room was necessary in a place like this. He, too, must have felt a sense of hopelessness. But rather than advocate for isolationism or surround himself and others with entertainment or other means of avoiding reality, he invested in stillness. He invested in holy space, in the “God whom [humankind] worships under many names and in many forms.”

As the clouds lift and warmer air returns this week to New York City, it’s important to me that I also invest myself in a spirit of Something Greater, that I take this concern and despair I know not what to do with before the Firm and Permanent, the Everlasting. And that I believe – and this part is important – that these painful stories are not told in vain, neither theirs nor mine. After all, we are and always will be some measure of who we believe we are. We believe our lives into being, or we disbelieve them into death. Not the material death we’ll all face one day, or that thousands upon thousands are facing daily with no say in the matter but a death rendered dead solely by our disbelief, by our abandonment of hope in ourselves and others. That’s a death we constantly find ourselves staring down and facing whether we want to or not, but it is not a death we should give in to ever! That’s when it becomes most important to hear again the call to life, even if that call is heard in a quiet room that’s really just a room unless whatever we’ve brought to the altar makes it something different. Because that something different is what matters. The sum of our lives is, as best I can tell, a matter of how well we hold close the tension of those opposites, the hope to belief and the despair to lack it. In that tension, we may allow the places where we find ourselves to be simply what they are, or we may make them into something more, something different, something better despite the circumstances surrounding them and by our shear presence and our living into the belief that we are called to more in this place that’s our holy home and a holy home to millions more, as well.

Changing Trains, or a little life update of sorts

There’s this moment after leaving the Secaucus station where the train ducks into a tunnel, and the deeper into the dark it goes, the quicker the air pressure changes as if to suck the little sickle cell up the vein to the heart of Manhattan. From under the Hudson, all the passengers are adjusting their ears with those closed-mouth yawns where they move their jaws into their throats repeatedly to equalize the pressure. And all the while they are staring into the black windowpane as though just outside the train there’s more to see than the bleak concrete tunnel. In reality, the windows have become mirrors. And in the tunnel, the train feels smaller, a community traversing together even if momentarily. There’s the woman doing her make-up because she woke up a little too late. The twenty-something is wearing a pair of Beats and bouncing his head up and down as though the whole train has been sucked into his favorite Eminem song. A woman walks the aisles begging for loose change so she can get home. A balding, slim man with glasses reads the Times. Another man with slightly hipper glasses, the Daily News. Most today are buried in their phones. The Quiet Car, the “no-talking” section of the train, is surprisingly louder than the other cars, mostly because everyone is so quiet that every screech, every bump, and every “Oh my God is the train about to break apart!” cacophony has been deafeningly heightened. Everybody is waiting. That’s what this is more than anything else. The City is coming but it isn’t here yet, and we have all resigned to the hard fact that this just is what it is and isn’t about to be any faster. Commuters are surprisingly patient people. Most of the time.

Sometimes, I think, I get so good at waiting that I could just end up living there in the train. I used to think it was because I loved the unknown that I ended up in wait. But the unknown implies some kind of obsession over the destination, and maybe for better or worse I just really like the journey. Suffice to say, I’m no longer on Shelter Island. I guess I sort of unintentionally traded it for Manhattan. And so, the last month and a half has been train ride after train ride between the City and New Jersey. I worked briefly delivering food via phone app as I walked from Greenwich Village to Harlem and back again. The tips were terrible. The work was exhausting. But when you walk miles on end around New York City, it’s hard not to fall in love with all the steel and glass – the way it stands fixed and stately while the arteries and veins below and beneath are dangerously alive and well.

In all the walking I did, I found myself meandering about some pretty fascinating places. I attended a faith table in the halls of The Riverside Church where Dr. King and Paul Tillich and past Presidents once preached. So, too, I found myself laying down in the street of Federal Plaza to stage a “die-in” protesting deportations of undocumented immigrant children that ended in their death. I spat on the steps of Trump Tower. I slurped down my first oysters with an old friend from the archaeological dig in Israel. I grabbed drinks in a quaint little bar in the Upper West side making new friends as we discussed just how to tackle the problem of Islamophobia head on. There’s something about this city, its mecca of ideas and hope, that makes you feel as though this could be where it all begins, whatever ‘it‘ is exactly. Every part of me that believes in changing the world, however narcissistic it may be to believe I could get to have a hand in doing so when that task belongs to us all, nevertheless feels called to this island more than any other.

Of course, it hasn’t been without its eye-openers. I was in Penn Station recently doing what people in Penn Station do: waiting. And killing time there, a homeless man approached me and asked me to buy him food. I hesitated and wanted to ignore him but went into Duane Reade and bought him a sandwich anyway. Afterward, I was upset with myself for having done so. My mind wandered to concerns about the “system of dependence” and whether I’d contributed to that. I felt guilty for having helped someone. And then it sort of hit me: is our country so broken, am I so broken, that there’s inevitable cultural guilt now ingrained in helping someone in need? And it’s not really about whether I’d bought the bloke a sandwich so much as it’s about the authentic kindness I was so hesitant to offer. I’m not even sure there was anything kind in the way I bought him a sandwich. I just wanted to give him the food as quickly as possible so he could go his way and I could go mine – both of us returning to our different worlds of waiting. And looking back on it, I don’t even think my hesitance or lack of kindness was about concerns over “systems of dependence,” the way my brain had conjured up that lie to make me feel better so much as it was about this very strange human desire to not want to confront real pain and suffering – be it our own or someone else’s. Suffering is something we’re so afraid of, given we’re so determined not to be reminded of our own mortality or our own flesh, that we’ll add to the pain by ignoring it as long as we can lest we have to see and do anything about it. But it’s the very fact that we have absolutely no idea what to do about it, how to help, that we end up preferring to ignore than to act.

A few weeks before, uncertain of my future and reeling from all this unexpected change, my girlfriend Mattie and I went to see Avenue Q and then to a Moroccan restaurant afterward. When it was over, we headed back to Penn Station for what had been a fantastically-successful evening. But when we got to Penn, we discovered there were no trains out until 11:11, two hours off. We were both exhausted but figured, “Hey, the City is ours, so let’s just keep walking around.” But every corner we turned, the City was just covered in darkness. A man wailing for help as if the world was ending. An addict coming up and begging for money from Mattie as his hands shook. When we said we wouldn’t give him money, he started grabbing for Mattie. I stepped between them ready to do whatever was necessary. There was more: people who smelled so badly you couldn’t sit within twenty feet of them in the train station, drunk people vomiting, a woman touching herself, a man who could barely walk. It was as if our romantic, privileged night had had the veil pulled, and the suffering side of the world was out in full force. It was scary, all that suffering. And so we naturally turned to those questions about what the hell we could do. Admittedly there was something off-putting to our white privilege luxury of getting to ask these questions. I was job searching and technically “homeless” and still saw “them,” these sufferers, as a “them.” Again, was assuming we can do something not kind of narcissistic? Who the hell are we to think we could tackle any of the problems these people have?

So, too, Mattie and I are really different in how we approach solutions to problems. There’s that old metaphor you might know about the guy walking on a beach with his friend, and he sees thousands of starfishes. Every so often, he picks one up and throws it back to the ocean. His friend asks, “Why are you doing that? It’s not like it matters,” and the guy responds, “It mattered to that one.” Mattie is relational. She sees throwing one starfish back into the sea to be hugely important even if it’s small in the grand scheme of things. I’m, sadly, embarrassingly, not often interested in the starfish as individuals – not as much as I feel I should be. It’s not that I don’t want to help. It’s that I’d rather go find the scientists, find out why all the starfish washed up here to begin with, discover it’s, say, the cause of Big Oil or some form of pollution, and then I want to go and speak truth to power. I think there’s salvation in Mattie’s approach. We need to see each other as people and not as broken systems even if the systems desperately need change. But I struggle with that.

We talked more: we joked about creating an organization of lobbyists who lobby lobbyists but for good causes. Such organizations are out there, I guess, but I don’t really feel they’re collaborative or united enough. We pressed the metaphor more. Mattie works in a pet store and is well-aware of how broken the pet industry is; she’s literally raised caged birds from the egg. The system is broken, and though Mattie abhors the notion of caging these creatures meant to soar, she understands that as much as she’d like to free them, a broken system means more birds, and it’s unlikely they would survive in the big blue yonder. She can do what little she can, though, and that’s to make sure they have good homes, that their cages are clean and well-kept and enough for them for now. It isn’t really a solution to the systemic problem, but it’s necessary work. A homeless shelter, a food pantry, a welfare check, food stamps: they don’t fight the system. They may even inadvertently shore it up at times. But until someone really tackles the Powers that Be, really breaks them apart or exposes them for the injustice they bring to our world in a way that begins meaningful change from the top-down, Mattie is right in caring for the caged birds, in throwing back one starfish at a time, or at least drizzling a little water on it to keep it alive. I don’t mean in using these metaphors to in any way cheapen that I am talking about people, human lives in reality. But it’s a point worth acknowledging – that it takes a metaphor about animals (where the power dynamics between human-to-animal are obviously very different than they should be when we’re talking human-to-human) before we often empathize with our fellow humankind, that we recall that they are, indeed, an us. And it’s fear, ours and theirs alike, that’s rendered us a them to them and them a them to us.

Our fellow humankind. Our brothers and our sisters. That’s where I’d like to leave this little blog. Back in September, a Facebook argument with a former Wabash professor of mine went from a post on his wall to a private message to exchanging emails. I won’t rehash the argument entirely, but I will say that the late Dr. Webb and I were on two polar ends of the political spectrum, and yet, he was more than willing to engage with me not just civilly but kindly, something I deeply valued and haven’t always been able to do myself. We talked, mostly, about adoption and how adoption should be understood by Christians in particular. He, as an adoptive parent, and me, as an adoptee, and again, we mostly disagreed, but on one point in particular, Dr. Webb and I couldn’t agree more: For him, his adopted children were his children. To put the word “adopted” in front of that cheapened it. They are “my family,” he stated, “My kin. As much inside of me as my ‘biological’ children. That’s a miracle made possible by grace.” I felt the same way of the wonderful people I call Mom and Dad. Where we disagreed was in the nuance: Dr. Webb felt strongly that blood is what makes someone kin, and to adopt someone was to make them by grace your own flesh and blood. While I appreciated what he was trying to do with that, I felt too much of our country’s negative history, of racism and tribal mentalities, were tied to privileging blood over choice. To me, our own flesh and blood are not our kin unless we’ve chosen to make them so. In a sense, even if someone is “biologically” yours, only through adopting – that is, choosing to nurture them – do they become yours or you theirs. If adoption creates blood bonds, as Dr. Webb argued, the family remains too small for me. The beautiful act of choosing to love, to adopt, radically reshapes how large the family can and should be, and it removes those barriers that keeps us an us and them a them.

But those barriers aren’t broken unless we strive to know each other, too, to really know each other, and that means to know our suffering, to confront and help carry it for one another. A week before his untimely death, Dr. Webb posted a beautiful, albeit haunting, article on depression, and as I read it over, I couldn’t help but think that it’s those old fears and those same broken systems that have kept us disconnected from one another. Dr. Webb’s beautiful theological definition for depression is that it is “when your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence.” He goes on to say, “If joy happens when your gifts fit the needs of the world around you, depression results when your emptiness echoes God’s silence.” This is true and God’s seeming silence, I believe, is felt most by the “silence” of those who surround us and by our own ways of silencing our true selves. But finding our voice and hearing others is hard work, and I can say I have, sadly, incredible understanding of when and why we fail to do so. I am thankful to have known this little giant of a teacher; his voice was heard. And will continue to be.

And so, the train keeps moving. We can put down our phones, our headphones, our newspapers, our staring into the bleak windowpanes and begin to talk again. We can begin to view those of us on the train car (and those off it) as an us and not a them. We can do the hard work of giving voice to ourselves and to others but only if we are willing not to give into our fears of the inevitable suffering that surrounds and too often destroys us. For now, I am gainfully employed in the City. I’ll be securing resources that will benefit on-the-ground workers from Syria to Gaza and from the horn of Africa to India. And every morning and every evening, I’ll hop on a train or a subway car, and as it sways back and forth in some rhythmic chant to the bloodstream of the City, I’ll try to do more than just waiting. Because the City isn’t what we’re waiting for. It’s not some distant place we’re trying to get to when the train pulls into the station. It’s right here, right now. It’s the train and the people on it. And it’s up to us whether they’ll be family or not.

Caught in the Fog

This week there was a fog that covered Shelter Island for an entire day. It was light enough that standing in the middle of it, the warm colors of the autumn leaves blurred together a little like the yellows and reds of a Van Gogh. The distant trees on a small hill could’ve been any mountain in the Smokies of East Tennessee. Or, that is to say, had the fog been a little thicker, I might’ve questioned what world I’d woken up in. Forty feet out into the Peconic, there wasn’t a bay anymore. There wasn’t the sight of the North Fork I’ve grown accustomed to seeing these past few months. There wasn’t even any water. Just a white, endless haze lingering for what seemed forever. Haunting. Beautiful. And unlike every low-hanging cloud I’ve ever experienced in my life, this one didn’t lift.

Fog

On Tuesday, scallop season opened, and as luck would have it, I had a free ticket (worth some $22) to a local 41st annual scallop dinner. As I’d never had scallops before, this seemed like the right way to be introduced to them: caught that very day there in the waters by my home. The dinner – hosted by a Methodist Church in Cutchogue – was so well-attended that there were three seatings over the course of four hours, and I heard-tell of people traveling as far as two hours to come to the meal. One couple at our table, in fact, had driven around from the South Fork (or, perhaps making their meal a $60 meal, taken the two ferries through Shelter Island) to get there.

The dinner conversation was pretty standard for what you might expect being seated with strangers. You know, the usual questions people ask you about what you do and where you live, the best ways to prepare scallops, etc. A woman across the table, on hearing about life on Shelter Island, asked about the local post office, casually dropping the name of the Postmaster (who is really quite wonderful). [As no mail is delivered on Shelter Island, the Post Office becomes a kind of hub for islanders to meet-and-greet and gab on about the weather or whatever else, and though I’ve only introduced myself to my Postmaster once, she has remembered not only my name but my P.O. Box, as well. And that makes the place feel incredibly warm and inviting.] It wasn’t until the end of the meal that the woman inquiring about the Postmaster revealed that, in fact, the Postmaster was her daughter.

At another point in the meal, having said that I lived in Morocco for awhile before moving to New York, a woman sitting next to me mentioned that you can pick up Ras Al-Hanut, a Moroccan spice, at the Love Lane Market in Mattituck, and the gentleman across from her mentioned that he’d lived in Morocco working at Port Lyautey at the Naval Air Station there in the early 1950s and that a friend of his had been a Flight Mechanic in Casablanca during World War II. Small world: so was my grandfather. Another couple yammered on about how bad this winter might be, yet another about how much the East End has changed in the last ten, twenty, thirty years.

Stories. All of them containing pivotal little moments – when someone’s daughter became the Postmaster or when someone found themselves on African soil or when there was the one winter way back when no one has ever forgotten. Those were the stories being told. Within them, I knew, a thousand layers, not only to what was told but to how it was told, to what was left out, to what had been forgotten or intentionally kept quiet be it momentarily or forever. Lately, I’ve been painfully aware of the way our lives are constructed by the stories we tell, even the brief ones to strangers over a warm meal. And I’ve been painfully aware of what’s contained within those stories: the hellos and the goodbyes, the questions of roads not taken or frustrations over the ones that were. And we seem desperate, clinging in a way to determine what our story should say or how it should be told – the thousands upon thousands of decisions that could make or break our story, whatever we wanted it to be. More than that, we sometimes seem so caught up in the book cover or in how well it could sell that we don’t actually just live it and see where it goes.

But that’s all because it comes back to the fog. We’re plagued by that fog more than anything else. The one that some day may not lift. We’re plagued by the questions that arise in it, by the unfamiliarity of it, by how hard it is to find anyone else – let alone ourselves – out there in the haunting yet beautiful abyss. The questions of the fog cripple us from living our story. But the thing is, the ferry still runs in the fog. In the distance, you can hear the foghorns, the bells tolling, the gongs striking. The little birds you couldn’t see through that white haze you could nevertheless hear playing, fishing, flapping their wings unconcerned over the lack of visibility. The fish rippled through the waters, their world unaffected. And those of us upon finding ourselves in the middle of the fog kept on walking discovering the beautiful autumn leaves were still very much visible – that right here, right now, right where you are trudging forward without seeing perfectly clearly what’s ahead… that might still be good enough. There might yet be plenty of beauty in that. We might find ourselves as someone else’s foghorn or playful bird or unconcerned fish. We might find that we can, in fact, embrace the fog and live to tell the story after all. And if not? Well, at least the scallops were fresh.

Broken Shells in all their Goodness, or the Adventure of the Mystery Black-Orange Pottery Pieces

On the southwestern tip of Shelter Island, there’s a hidden public beach called Shell Beach. I say it’s hidden because you could easily drive right by the unmarked turn-off for it in a residential area and never know it was there. But the beach itself is nearly a mile-long peninsula just barely wide enough for a one-lane, gravel road. And all along the beach are thousands upon thousands of shells. On one side of the beach, in fact, the shells have beat up against the bulkhead and are about a foot thick. The tide has just kind of dumped them there in a treasure trove of conch shells, clams, and cockles, among others.

I went there this afternoon with our summer staffers Charlotte and Wendy and Wendy’s kids Jamin and Cora, and we just kind of walked around in awe at the beauty of this little, underpopulated hidden beach. While Wendy and Cora swam, Jamin and I – decked out in shoes and socks and not remotely prepared to get wet – went digging through the thousands of shells instead.

“What about this one, this one’s cool?” Jamin would hand me one of the jingle shells and point out something about it he liked. I kept tossing the shells about with my feet, occasionally picking one up, inspecting it, and determining whether or not it was good enough for keepsake. There’d be one that was oh, so close to being perfect were it not for the chip on the side. And I wondered out loud, when there’s so many thousands to choose from, what the rubric was for deciding a shell was worth picking up and calling it yours. Did it have to be exotic and different or weird? Or just colorful enough? Or shinier than the others? Jamin couldn’t decide, but it seemed like his rubric was a lot different than mine. He’d pick up fully-broken shells, funky shells, rocks, whatever and acknowledge how wonderful it was. I was pickier. Too picky.

I found a rare conch shell that could easily still function as a home – not a single crack, not a single hole in the shell at all. “Oh yeah,” I told Jamin, “This one’s perfect.” But Jamin wasn’t all that impressed. “No, it’s not perfect, ’cause there’s not a conch living in it,” he laughed.

Shell BeachAt one point, we started finding bits and pieces of what looked to be black pottery with orange paint on it. It was curious enough that we started to collect a little of it, only to discover that the more we looked around, the more there seemed to be. Ten, twenty, a hundred yards, there was more and more of the broken black pottery with faded orange paint. It became easier to spot as if our eyes had grown accustomed to look for it and nothing else. Jamin and Cora began to collect mounds of it, and we placed it in a pile and discussed what it could be. On a few pieces were the letters, “CH,” or a registered symbol. It took me back to my time in Israel digging through Iron age pottery and wondering whether the piece I was holding was Egyptian or Phoenician. There was a mystery at hand, and we were determined to solve it. As Jamin and I walked looking for more pieces with writing on them, I started thinking through it: it was too much and too spread out to be only from one jar or bottle. It felt ceramic, maybe hardened rubber and broke fairly easily under stress. The “CH” probably spelled “Champion,” and the orange paint and word itself seemed to indicate some kind of sport-related equipment. I told Jamin I thought it was skeet and explained, the best I could, what skeet is. By the time we met back up with Wendy, she’d been thinking the exact same thing.

Searching a beach through a treasure trove of shells and skeet, and I can’t help but shake this notion that we find what we’re looking for – what we were probably looking for before we even stumbled upon the treasure. Earlier this week, I read an article on CNN about how UFO experts have grabbed hold of some of the pictures taken by the Mars’ rovers and claimed they see alien life encased in the rocks. Others have come to call what they saw “pareidolia,” the trick the human mind plays in that we often see something that isn’t really there because our mind wants to bring recognizable shapes together to create meaning from them. It’s the very same thing with seeing Jesus in a piece of toast. And it felt similar somehow digging through shells, seeing in the shells the worst and best of ourselves:

There was brokenness within me built into my drive to find the perfect piece. There was happy, childlike love in Jamin’s discovery that the broken pieces were still whole and wonderful in his eyes. There was such absolute grace in Jamin’s admonishment that what I saw as the “perfect” piece lacked perfection because it was merely an empty house and no longer a real home. There was the mystery of the broken pottery and our very real desire to know the stories that brought the brokenness to this beach – determination in solving a puzzle that would somehow bring us comfort. All summer long, what I’ve seen in myself, in others too, are these very things. We want so badly to find the perfect pieces when there just are none. We could choose to pick up the broken ones and see them as just as beautiful, if not more so, than the ones that just haven’t been around long enough to break, but too often, we end up blaming the whole treasure trove for not having enough of what we’re looking for rather than asking why we’re searching how we’re searching. And I think that’s so very important – to recognize that our perception is our reality and may very well need to be questioned, even if it’s questioned by a seven year-old. That our frustrations, our struggles, our puzzles before us so often have so little to do with what’s right in front of us and so much to do with the baggage we’ve stored up and carried to this very moment where we find ourselves frustrated, struggling, or puzzled in the first place. At any rate, I’m not sure I’ll ever pick up a shell again the same way without seeing how beautiful it really is, but I will be going back to Shell Beach.

My Summer, 2015

DepositI had this moment today driving through the Catskills where I realized I was sipping Pepsi in a glass bottle as I drove a red, Ford truck from the early ’90s, and I just felt overwhelmingly American. I couldn’t help but be a little culture-shocked. Before me were acres of pristine, seemingly untouched conifers lining the mountainside and surrounded by fields of corn. In the valley sat large red barns, black-and-white cows as if from a painting you’d find in Cracker Barrel, a run-down Harry Ferguson tractor or two, and the vibe of rural America in all its depressed, hard-working love. Appalachia stretches all the way to New York in more ways than geography.

To me, this is how America should be seen: on the road – and not the interstate system – sipping a Pepsi. But it was so foreign to what I’ve come to believe is “New York” (living in what’s basically the Hamptons) that I felt somehow removed and jarred by it all. It was one of those strange moments where I could peer over the last five, even ten years of my life and think on the many roads I’ve ridden over that brought me to this one. And how vastly different those roads have been.

In some ways, this summer has been one of the most wonderfully-strange summers in recent history. And I think it’s because of moments like that one. Where you just open your eyes and realize you’re driving through the Catskills and it’s all a little surreal somehow, because you never quite saw your life unfolding in that way. My summer started off with earning a series of certifications I needed (“Team building initiatives,” “First Aid & CPR,” “Lifeguard Manager,” “Food Handler’s Certificate,” etc.) to be able to run the camps where I work. On my birthday, the day after I earned my CPR certificate, I was walking around in Greenport with Johnny Gall when a man collapsed and started bleeding on the street. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever actually had to direct someone to call 911 (and for a complete stranger at that), and that it happened the day after I finished my certificate was, well, just one more of those surreal moments.

A few days later (and this has become a regular thing that sometimes annoys me), someone visiting [one of the two] camp[s] where I work was just beside himself that I was in the kitchen serving him food. “I don’t understand,” he said as nicely as he could, “You have a seminary degree from Vanderbilt, and you want to be here, doing this?!” [This is sort of a general theme I encounter often: that “camp” is not a “big-boy job,” and when are you going to get your “big-boy job,” especially if you have a Master’s degree.] I don’t think anyone means it harshly. It’s just that it’s a position that tends to be associated with someone who’s in their early 20s and still figuring out life, and yet, as I served the food, I couldn’t help but think, “But wouldn’t you want to be doing this?” In St. Louis, I went to a seminar with a friend that was all about achieving financial freedom, and the underlying message of the seminar (which I don’t agree with at all) was that what people are really looking for in saving up their money is to be able to have the freedom to do what they really want to do. If you can plan out you finances early on and in a smart way, you can retire early enough to achieve your real dreams. That sounds stupid to me. Somehow, I managed to figure out how to live on a friggin’ beautiful island only accessible by ferry – and do it cheaply. I’m two hours from one of the greatest cities in the world, and I can take a bus or a train there almost whenever I want. Want to kayak? Sure. Learn how to sail? Why not? Travel around for work? Yup. Live in a haunted cottage? Well, okay, maybe not that one. But help young and old alike learn how to find their true selves all while getting to do the rest of that stuff? Yes. I could go get a “big-boy job,” whatever that even is anyway, or I could just live a little of that dream now. And have a meaningful impact on people’s lives while I’m doing it. But even that is yet one more of those surreal things. Was I right to choose this path that people don’t usually take, that I chose to defy some of the “normal” expectations to money-making and living and dreaming? I don’t know.

Ford

Still, as I was driving around this afternoon, and I was thinking about all the roads I’ve crossed and the different directions I could’ve taken, I kept thinking how much I loved the endless skyscape out here. I know those two clauses don’t seem like they go together, but hang with me. Something about the mountains makes the sky so much more grand. Maybe it’s because the sun has more to work with when it’s busy painting its sunset or sunrise not just in the sky but in doing wondrous things to make green trees yellow-orange. Or maybe it’s how much more blue the blue seems against a green backdrop. You do not get this effect in the bay as much. A sunrise over the sea is unquestionably beautiful, but it’s a very different kind of beautiful. It’s one kind of blue flowing into another kind of blue. It’s the kind of beautiful that is repetitive and predictable (seriously, how many sunset pictures can you take before it’s kind of a tired meme?) – and while I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way, it does make the mountain sky a little more appealing to watch at times.

And yet, I am called to the sea. For as much as I love the mountain sky, the waters of the open ocean refresh me whether they’re stilled and calm or churning in a mad splash that threatens drowning. Last week, a gale bringing in gusts of around 80 miles an hour passed over the camp knocking down a few trees and setting a transformer smoking (and eventually on fire). Somehow, I woke up before the storm began at 5:45 in the morning and sat through it in the stairwell of my cottage watching a 100-year old oak sway back and forth like it was a sapling and listening to trees literally five feet from my cottage crack, split, and hit the ground with a thud. Immediately after the rain passed, I rushed outside to check in on campers, review damage, call the electric company, etc. I was at home with myself in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever been. Here on the sea, I knew what to do. So much of life is spent juggling between what we think we love and where we really belong, and sometimes those things can match up, but the greatest sadness I have ever experienced is in discovering where those two things pull us in the most opposite of directions. You can love the skyscape of the mountains, but will you know your heart and calling belongs to the sea? Can you accept that truth not just when the seas are calm but also when the gale threatens to blow your house down? Can you – as surreal as it may be – love the mountain for what it is, temporarily gracing it with your presence, but then return to where you actually belong when your days in the woods are done? Either way, you should at least try sipping a Pepsi in a glass bottle while you drive a red Ford through Upstate New York sometime. I highly recommend it.

What it Means to Know a Place, or Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

For the past month, when I’ve been driving around, I’ve had the radio on “scan” just trying my hardest to get a feel for what Long Island and Connecticut (since we pick up some of those stations) have to offer. I’m fairly certain at this point that there’s some kind of unstated rule where every station has a Billy Joel quota to meet. But aside from that, Long Island radio is what I imagine would happen if a few of Nashville and Memphis’s best radio stations got together and said, “Let’s make it impossible to find awful music in this area.” I mean, I have to say, I have not been disappointed. Even the public radio station out of Southampton – WPPB – has to be one of the most impressive radio stations I’ve ever heard.

BikeySo, earlier today, I folded up my bike (cause it does that), hopped into a friend’s Honda Fit, threw on a pair of silly sunglasses, and took the ferry to Greenport. Sidenote: There’s this magic thing that happens the very moment you cross the ferry where a huge sense of relief comes over you, and you realize that you’ve been “water-locked” for the past however long it’s been since you left the island, and now that you’ve escaped, the possibilities feel endless. Maybe it’s some kind of cabin fever, since an island is basically just a big anchored boat. I haven’t figured out what it is about the ferries or the island that make it feel like this exactly. Although, yesterday, I overheard a conversation that went something like, “Oh yeah, I was biking down Nordstrand Avenue, and it just ends. I didn’t realize it would just end like that,” and then someone else interjected, “I mean, it’s an island; pretty much all roads on this rock are going to do that.” Fair point. It reminds me a little of the weeks on end in Morocco where I hadn’t left my village for a long time, and then the moment you got into a taxi to head to the capital or anywhere really, this excitement inevitably came over you.

So, I’m cruising off the ferry, listening to Long Island Public Radio, and this George Harrison song I’d somehow never heard comes on, and all I could think was that you never really know a place until you have come to know its radio stations. And I started to think about how quickly Long Island has become my home. In just a short two months, I’ve driven through the City and back more times than I care to count, learned the names of all the places out here that end in “-ogue” (though I’m still not sure how to pronounce them all, and it even seems they don’t all have the same pronunciation). And I’ve finally reached that point where I’m not using my GPS anymore to get to the places I need to go – both on and off the island.

All that is to say, there’s an ownership in knowledge. A friend made fun of me on Facebook for referring to Shelter Island as “my island,” but the more I’ve come to know the place, the more that’s exactly what it is. There were times in Morocco where I distinctly remember thinking, “This is Morocco, and don’t you forget it. Don’t you let this place ever lose its newness. Don’t let the desert become your normal. Don’t get bored of looking at camels. Don’t take it for granted,” but as I came to know it and grew frustrated with sandstorms and the struggle of Arabic and the slowness of time, and as that all became my work and my life, it was only when someone new showed up that I was reminded to see it as new again, through fresh eyes. In a manner of speaking, the same is slowly happening with Shelter Island. As I come to know the place, the love of it grows and fades together. To learn about the islands history with slavery, to see it as a cushion of continued white wealth, to hear some residents use “summer” as a verb, I’m made painfully aware of what lies beneath the pristine little pearl of the Peconic. And yet, for the frustrations that pop up the more I learn about the place, I find that I love it anyway. I love it in spite of the things I don’t like. I love it, in some ways, SHAbecause of the things I don’t like, and there’s a part of me that feels like that’s an important way to love. We’re a society that wants so badly to toss away, to ignore, to forget all the ugliness of our history, of ourselves, whether that’s over a flag or statues or celebrating that “love wins” eager to move beyond the ways in which love is very much still losing in some places. It would serve us well to love more “complexly.” It would do us good to acknowledge that the “better angels of our nature” don’t render the rest of our nature devils. Or when the devil within is what we choose to see, that we would see it more fully, that we would see the whole self and not merely the part we love or the part we hate. That task is not easy. Most of us, often myself included, would rather just flip on the radio and get lost in the music.